‘Black Panther’ and the tragic history of Asian aspirations
The latest Marvel instalment Black Panther may look like another comic book superhero blockbuster on the surface but it grapples with some profound issues about the African experience amid its obligatory explosions and chase sequences. At its heart, the film is an anti-colonial fantasy which reflects the imagination and aspirations of billions of people in the Third World—the aspiration to see one’s own country rich and powerful enough to count as an equal to the West. Black Panther gives life to this dream by imagining a technologically advanced and economically prosperous African nation which can give assistance to the West instead of taking it.
The film goes further by asking the question that if such a nation existed, how it could help its lesser fortunate Third World brethren. In doing so, it explores some of the same ideas that Third World leaders have struggled with for more than a century, ideas which make up crucial aspects of national histories of countries like Japan, India and China. The result is an examination of the ethical responsibilities that emerging powers of Asia and Africa have towards their continental neighbours—an examination that carries deep significance for leaders of these countries today, especially in Beijing.
Black Panther is set in the fictitious African nation of Wakanda, a prosperous technological utopia that somehow escaped the clutches of European colonialism to outpace the West in economic advancement. It is really a “what if?” story: What if colonialism had failed? What if Africans and Asians could have enjoyed the fruits of modernity without the degradations of national subjugation? What if the First and Third Worlds weren’t divided so neatly along racial lines?
Sadly, the real history could never allow a Wakanda in Africa. The continent was simply too poor and too underdeveloped to realize such a possibility. But in Asia, the Wakandan dream has seemed possible for more than a century. It was here that the tide of European colonialism could have conceivably been stopped. And it is here that colonialism’s legacy—the persistent hegemony of the West—can conceivably be reversed.
Perhaps, the greatest example of the Wakandan dream was Japan at the turn of the 20th century. Its inexorable march to progress stunned the West and inspired millions of Asians. In 1905 when Japan defeated Tsarist Russia, the idea of an Asian nation besting a European power proved so potent that people as far as in India began naming their children after famous Japanese admirals.
How did the Japanese success affect the rest of the continent? It is here that the philosophical meditations of Black Panther become so revelatory. The central conflict in the film between two pan-continental ideologies espoused by two contenders to the Wakandan throne. Killmonger, film’s villain, proposes to use Wakanda’s power to wage a global war to create an inverse world empire—the one in which Africans sit on the top while the West is subjugated. The protagonist, King T’Challa, chooses a more benign approach by envisioning a global network of humanitarian assistance and international cooperation underwritten by Wakandan technology.
In its success, Japan gradually turned towards Killmonger’s dream, which was really a nightmare. In the 1930s and 40s, Tokyo set about carving out a “Co-Prosperity Sphere”, an empire couched in the rhetoric of pan-Asianism. At least temporarily, it managed to create an inverse empire, in which Asians were the masters while Australians and Americans worked in death camps. Of course, Chinese, Vietnamese, Burmese and other Asians were also put to work alongside them. Yet, the idea of this inverse empire had such potency that it managed to entice several Asian nationalists, including India’s Subhash Chandra Bose, who were willing to raise armies to serve in this continental imperial project.
King T’Challa’s vision of benign cooperation had its own real-life parallels, most significantly in the person of India’s Jawaharlal Nehru. In the middle of 20th century, while India was going through its own birth pangs, Nehru looked beyond its borders to aid other African and Asian countries. In the Spring of 1947, even before India was independent, Nehru organized the first Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, declaring that European colonialism had resulted in “the isolation of the countries of Asia from one another” that needed to be broken down. Despite India’s own poverty, it spent the next two decades providing crucial help to other third world countries, for example, during the Indonesian Independence Movement, India-China’s decolonization, the Korean War, the Suez Crisis and the Congolese Civil War. Unfortunately, by mid-1960s, overwhelmed by its own problems, India receded from global problems and its contributions were slowly erased from history.
It has taken nearly half a century, but finally China’s rise is making the Wakandan dream possible once again in Asia. The Chinese growth story has the potential to create an Asian giant which can meet the West on an equal footing. And like its predecessors, Beijing is also looking to find ways to use its new-found power to impact the rest of the third world. The clearest manifestation of this instinct is Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), which promises a stupendous amount of investment across Asia and Africa to create a new infrastructure of intercontinental trade.
Like any other Chinese initiative, BRI has its boosters and critics across the world, the former presenting it as a way for Beijing to share its prosperity and the latter suspecting it to be a neo-imperialist project. It is still too early to decide who is right, perhaps even Xi hasn’t fully chalked out his vision in his own mind. But BRI has the potential to either become Killmonger’s nightmare or T’Challa’s dream, a rehash of the Japanese Empire or a reincarnation of Nehru’s Afro-Asian solidarity. While the final decision to choose one path or another lies with Beijing, other nations from the West as well as from the third world can play a role in encouraging China to choose one over the other.
In any case, the Wakandan dream lives in Asia once again.
Sandeep Bhardwaj is a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research specializing in South Asian geopolitics.